Learning the lessons from Beyond the Fragments
Yesterday (8 June) was a rare sunny Saturday in Manchester yet 45 people decided to spend the day at The University of Manchester to discuss feminism, socialism and the state at the movement at an all day event titled Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the making of Socialism. It was not just the usual crowd for our events, though I certainly hope many do become so, some had been involved in socialist feminist politics for decades and others just a few years. One contributor recalled going to one of the first Beyond the Fragments meetings in 1979 at the age of 17 and how the book and the events around it made him a feminist to this day. The event was organised as a new edition of the book written by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright has been published with three new chapters looking at what has changed, what has been lost and what has been won in the 34 years since the first edition was published. We were privileged to have one of the authors, Lynne Segal, come and participate and speak.
The first session set the context of the day, what struggles are ongoing, where is the left going wrong and the role of feminism in radical change. The panel was Rachel Twaites (ACI), Jess Winterson (Plan C) and Katheryn Burdon-Manley (IS Network). Speakers touched on the changes within capitalism, the state of the left, bureaucratic inertia and patriarchy within the trade unions and campaigning in communities on issues such as abortion rights and the bedroom tax. The discussion which followed was lively and an interesting exchange took place on the legacy and relevance of the Wages for Housework campaign and whether it is an effective strategy to confront capital or a road to being subsumed by it. Rachel and Jess correctly, in my opinion, defended the approach elaborated by Silvia Federici in the 1975 article Wages Against Housework which stated that when women “struggle for wages we struggle unambiguously and directly against our social role.”
After a short break the second session was opened by Lynne Segal who spoke for 30 minutes on where and why the three authors were drawn to write the original pamphlet and the impact it had on the movement. The real strength of the talk was the explanation of neo-liberalism and Lynne’s recalling of what has been lost over the last three decades. Unlike the TV shows and popular histories the 1970s were, for Lynne, a decade of hope, cooperation and whilst often struggles were hard there seemed to be little doubt that capitalism could be overthrown. The defeats we have suffered as the neoliberal juggernaut flattened all resistance has left our movement in a worse situation than the 1970s where common assumptions and working class and feminist organisations have been lost. Lynne offered a way out of these problems by citing the need to bring together the movements in a Syriza style formation that would fight back against neo-liberalism and seek to turn the clock back and restore the welfare state by capturing the state. Such a broad movement would encompass all those on the left whether within the Labour and Green parties or the revolutionary groups beyond. Lynne was joined Alice Robson (Feminist Fightback) who spoke about her experiences of getting involved with the left and how finding Beyond the Fragments was a crucial moment in her political development. Alice also spoke of the work she had been involved in around defending the occupation of the women’s library in London in March, the ongoing work to establish a local community space and the cleaners’ struggle in London. She stressed the need for an intersectional approach to developing a socialist feminism that could make necessary links to build an effective movement.
The final session was opened by Gwen Lonergan (Plan C and Feminist Fightback) who spoke how racism and sexism can still privilege those who are anti-racists and anti-sexist and that it is important to recognise that the movement must be accessible and that feminism means different things to different people. Cat Rylance (ACI) was the second speaker in the session and discussed the ongoing disintegration of the left, the failure of many groups to understand such basic ideas as having women’s caucuses and the need for a vision beyond capitalism. Cat also noted that the reason why many of these discussions around feminism are taking place is because of the crisis across the left after the “Comrade Delta” rape allegations that tore apart the Socialist Workers Party. A wide ranging discussion followed covering how to rebuild the left, how capitalism has taken feminism and sought to transform it into a individualist quest and the question of Islamic feminism.
The day was a success and the debates we started will continue, the links we have made with speakers from Plan C, the IS Network and individuals of no affiliation will be built on and the open and inclusive approach we took that helped us have useful discussions will be repeated and strengthened.